The artist’s ambiguous ceramics express a right-brained sense of craft, color and surface, and a subtle dark humor.
STERLING RUBY I am sitting here looking at a yellow work of yours that I own called Wall Street Gerbil. It has had a place in our house for a few years now, and I enjoy it quite a bit. There has been a lot of debate over whether the small hanging protrusion in the middle is a nose or a dick. I was wondering if, as a personal favor, you could shed some light on this…
RON NAGLE I wasn’t thinking of that particular protrusion as a nose or a dick. My intention is to make images as ambiguous as possible so that viewers can create their own story. But for your own peace of mind, the protrusion has nothing to do with a nose. I would think of it as some kind of growth coming off of a field. I think the main influences on this kind of image, which occurs occasionally, are warts, skin tabs or moles, but I never make things too specific.
SR Since we’re on the topic of titles, I keep thinking that a lot of your titling is directed toward naming or giving a kind of subjectivity to your objects.
RN You are correct in thinking that my titles are often an attempt to vaguely personify the inanimate. My assistants and I usually have an ongoing list of titles. We then put these against a group of pieces until we find one that makes some sort of sense at a vague associative level. Wordplay, non sequiturs and free association of imagery all come into play in the titles, but don’t actually affect what I make. I name my pieces like you would name your kids. I particularly love the way some words fit together phonically, which must come from my background as a songwriter. Without being too heavy-handed, most of my titles have an element of humor and, frequently, darkness. I will often hear a phrase that catches my attention and I’ll write it down because it struck some humorous note for me. For example, there was a guy from the utility company who, after performing various services, asked me to fill out a form evaluating his performance. He instructed me to “circle ‘excellent.’” This cracked me up, so there will be a piece coming soon called Circle Excellent.
SR Your sensibility for ’50s post-war aesthetics seems more in line with artists such as H.C. Westermann or Billy Al Bengston as opposed to Peter Voulkos or John Mason. What are your thoughts regarding the interactions between Abstract Expressionism and things like the hot rod or Kustom Kulture movements during the early stages of the California Clay Revolution?
RN Even though I am strongly associated with the California Clay Revolution, the majority of my influences come from sources other than ceramic artists. I first delved into the well-crafted object when making model airplanes as a kid. I saw these guys at the rec center making Japanese fighter planes out of orange crates, sanding the wood down to a fine finish, sealing off the surface, painting the planes with Testors Dope hobby paint, and then meticulously gluing the components together. That same mentality still exists in my work. When I was making model airplanes with my father, he would always tell me two things: “Sand with the grain” and “Never do a job half-assed.” As much as I rebelled against the majority of his teachings and opinions, those two seemed to stick. After this, I was fully engaged in the hot rod culture in San Francisco and had a ’48 Ford Coupe, which had forty coats of British racing green lacquer, sanded with fine sandpaper between each coat to create a richness and depth that couldn’t be achieved without that kind of fanaticism and attention to detail. I still think that there are cars from the past, both custom and production, that are more interesting than most sculpture.
I came from San Francisco, but I couldn’t relate to the Bay Area figurative school, so I made pilgrimages to LA to see shows at the Ferus Gallery as often as I could. Theirs was an aesthetic, in scale and execution and surface, to which I could relate quite strongly. You mentioned Billy Al Bengston; I was unquestionably greatly influenced not only by his use of the airbrush to apply paint, but by the incredible sense of color in his paintings of the mid-’50s. Of all the California Clay “Revolutionaries,” my main influence was Kenny Price, whose discipline, sense of craft and integrity have been major influences on my work.
With a few exceptions, I have a great deal of disdain for the “ceramic world” and its preoccupation with material, process and trite humor. I am much more drawn to painting. In my younger days, I looked a lot at Tàpies, Morandi, Albers, de Kooning, Rothko and Twombly. I always felt the aesthetic aspirations of painters were on a much higher level than those of the ceramic crowd. That being said, I am crazy about almost all ceramics from the Momoyama period in Japan (in the late sixteenth century) and American 1940s restaurant ware, because of its lack of pretense.
SR I’m not sure if you are tired of talking about this, but I just found out that you did all of the sound effects for The Exorcist (1973). What were some of your favorite scenes and your techniques for producing the sound for them?
RN I’m never tired of talking about this, because its one of the best jobs I ever had. I was working with brilliant professionals in a rarified environment where I could do anything I wanted and get paid for it. The film’s director, William Friedkin, wanted the sound to be “bigger than life,” so that even the smallest details were magnified. I was given a portable tape recorder to record anything that popped into my head that could potentially used in the film. The sounds for the beginning of the movie were organic, such as the sound of a single bee in a jar tuned a hundred times to create a threatening din. That was combined with the sound of pigs being slaughtered along with some ambient machine noise that leaked into the recording. I had no idea what I was going to do with this combination of sounds once it was assembled on multi-track tape, but when it was played against the opening scenes, it seemed to work. The director flipped for it and I got the job.
One scene that stands out is when the priest goes through the window. The sound was created by smashing many, many window props and recording the smashing at various distances, as well as extending the tinkling and falling of the glass to just a little more than real time. That one window crash consisted of about forty one-inch pieces of tape spliced together to make one long crash. Later on, it occurred to me that much of the stacking or layering used in the recording process is not that dissimilar to my approach for glazing sculpture: I fire my ceramics many times and use layer after layer of glaze, underglaze or china paint to create the color. At least that is what I did until very recently. I am now using auto paint that has been matted out to paint on bisque ware. This usually requires fewer layers for the same effect, and it is a much more direct way of working. It is very satisfying to see how certain color combinations come alive immediately, before my very eyes, without having to wait to open the kiln every morning. It is just more like painting, which is something I’ve been trying for all along. I am seriously considering making my next group of work out of hollow cast plastic, using clay only to create the first immediate image and taking a mold from that.
SR I am always amazed at your generation’s craftsmanship skills. Do you think that this comes from a time when everyone learned how to fix and make things properly? You first learned ceramics from your mother, and then moved into jewelry making. What were the gender associations at this time for someone working in ceramics and jewelry?
RN My father was a businessman by profession, but he could make or fix almost anything, so the idea of making objects was instilled in me early. My mother was also a very skilled seamstress. I am like many people of my generation, whose parents made or fixed stuff because they came out of the Depression.
Craftsmanship, for me, does not only represent slick or finished work. It is any technique that makes the finished piece believable. I started off as a jeweler because it was considered a very hip thing to do during the Beatnik period. During that time, the majority of contemporary jewelers were men, whereas ceramics was still thought of as something that little old ladies did. It wasn’t until the studio pottery movement, and then Voulkos, that ceramics took on a macho image. When I started using things like store-bought glazes, china paints and decals and began slip casting, it ran contrary to this macho image. Let’s not forget that it was Kenny Price who took these small cup and vessel forms and started bringing bright color and subtlety to contemporary ceramics.
SR Can you explain what you mean when you call yourself a “White Devil Formalist”? Is this the same as being a “Precious Asshole”?
RN Being a “White Devil Formalist” and a “Precious Asshole” are two separate, but similarly glib, responses to classifying myself. “White Devil Formalist” is a sarcastic way of saying that I am a white male whose work doesn’t necessarily have literal meaning. “Precious Asshole” means that I am drawn to small-scale, intimate work by artists such as Morandi, Vermeer, Price, Cornell, Albers and Albert Ryder.
Having taught at the college level for fifty years, I’ve become very cynical and, in fact, resentful of political correctness, French theory and the what-does-it-mean crowd. By and large, I learned to detest academia and its left-brained approach to the arts. People forget that all of the aforementioned issues are matters of fashion and not necessarily the truth.
I come from a music background, and I apply the same sensibility to both making and experiencing art. It all comes down to what it feels like, what it conjures, what associations a great piece of work can have on a vaguely, dare I say, magical level. I make no separation between high or low, pop music or oil-painted masterpieces. I would just as soon hear “River Deep, Mountain High” as look at Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. They both do the same thing for me. I told my daughter to go to the Met and see the Turner show. She said, “Ike Turner?”
Previously published in KALEIDOSCOPE #12 – Fall 2011
Ron Nagle (American, b. 1939) is an artist who lives and works in San Francisco. He is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Nagle’s work is featured in the current group show at Matthew Marks in Los Angeles, on view through 25 June.
Images in order of appearance: Scrunchabunch, 2008; Bronze 8, 1991; Handsome Drifter; Beirut Canal, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York/Los Angeles
Portrait by Whitney "Whitey" Irvin